A cabinet minister has sparked anger by defending the jeering of a journalist who quizzed Boris Johnson about his notorious description of Muslim women as “letterboxes”.

Supporters of the Tory leadership favourite turned on a reporter who said the comment had brought “shame on your party” and made colleagues question if he was “fit to be prime minister”.

Former Conservative chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who has repeatedly criticised the party's handling of Islamophobia within its ranks, said the barracking was "deeply troubling".

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But, asked about the episode, Johnson-supporting chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss said: “I think it's fine for an audience to express support or question particular questions. This is a free country.”

Mr Johnson told Sky News political editor Beth Rigby that he apologised for any offence caused by his comment, but won loud cheers from the audience as he insisted he would "continue to speak as directly as I can".

Lady Warsi said the apology - his first for the letterbox remarks - represented "progress, if teeny weeny steps". But she said his words had led to violence in the streets, warning: "We will all get hurt in the process."

And Mr Johnson's leadership rival Sajid Javid signalled his disapproval of the barracking as he called Ms Rigby to ask a question at his launch event later in the day, telling her: "You shouldn't worry about anyone booing you at this event for just doing your job."

Asked if he was concerned that the Tories were turning back into the "nasty party", Mr Javid said: "I'm concerned about the rise of division in politics It's not just in the UK. Globally we are seeing a rise in division and alongside that, sadly, some politicians - and I'm not talking about anyone in particular here - who think that the way to win votes is to exploit division. I'm very worried about that."

Ms Truss came under fire on Twitter for refusing to criticise the jeers, with one reader saying it showed that the “Tories' slide toward authoritarianism continues”.

Another post read: “Liz Truss has clearly been promised a place in his cabinet. Tory MPs really are the lowest of the low when it comes to integrity and principles.”

The incident happened during the Westminster launch of Mr Johnson’s campaign for the Conservative leadership, as journalists questioned the former foreign secretary after his 12-minute speech.

It was unclear who was responsible for the heckling, which came from a group of backers which included fellow MPs.

Conservative MP Boris Johnson takes a moment during his Conservative Party leadership campaign launch (Getty Images)

Sky News political editor Beth Rigby told Mr Johnson: “You brandish your Brexit credentials, but many of your colleagues worry about your character.

“Your former Foreign Office colleague Alistair Burt said your description of the prime minister’s plan as a ‘suicide vest wrapped around Britain’ was ‘outrageous, inappropriate and hurtful’. He said this language had to stop, but it doesn’t stop.

“You brought shame on your party when you described veiled Muslim women as letterboxes and bank robbers. People who have worked closely with you do not think you are fit to be prime minister.”

Mr Johnson prompted laughter by interrupting Ms Rigby after apparently mishearing her reference to his character and asking if she was inquiring about “my parrot”.

But as she moved on to discuss his comments about Muslim women, there were groans and jeers from disgruntled Johnson supporters around the room.

And there were cheers and applause as Mr Johnson responded to the rumbles of discontent by telling Ms Rigby he was “delighted that many of my former colleagues seem to dissent from your view”.

He added: “I want to make a general point about the way I do things and the language I use.

“Occasionally some plaster comes off the ceiling as a result of a phrase I may have used, or the way that phrase has been wrenched out of context and interpreted by those who wish for reasons of their own to caricature my views.”

He was applauded as he said: “But I think it’s vital for us as politicians to remember that one of the reasons that the public feels alienated now from us all as a breed is because too often they feel that we are muffling and veiling our language, not speaking as we find – covering everything up in bureaucratic platitudes, when what they want to hear is what we genuinely think.

“If sometimes in the course of trying to get across what I genuinely think I use phrases and language which cause offence, then of course I’m sorry for the offence, but I will continue to speak as directly as I can.”

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Lady Warsi said that Mr Johnson's "kind-of apology" amounted to "progress, even if teeny weeny steps".

But she said: "Offensive comments that lead to attacks on the streets are not 'plaster falling off the ceiling'. It’s the start of the roof caving in and we will all get hurt in the process

"The audience groaning and talking over the question was a deeply troubling moment."

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